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LAKE MISTASSINI. 



GEORGE C. HURLBUT. 



This lake is first mentioned by Father Charles 
Albanel, S. J., who discovered it in 1672, in his voyage, 
begun on the Saguenay River and continued beyond 
the portages across the lake and down Rupert's River 
to James Bay. 

Father Albanel's account is in these words : " On 
the 1 8th (June) we entered this great Lake of the 
Mistassirinins, which is held to be so large that to go 
round it takes twenty days of fine weather. The Lake 
takes its name from the rocks that fill it, which are of a 
prodigious size. There is a number of very beautiful 
islands with plenty of game and fish of every kind ; and 
elks, bears, caribous, porcupines and beavers are there 
in abundance. We had already made six leagues 
through the islands which break it up, when I beheld as 
it were a height of land from as far off as the eye could 
reach ; and I asked our people if it was towards that 
place that we were to go ? ' Hush! ' said our guide to 
me, ' do not look at it, if thou wouldst not perish.' 
The Savages of all those regions imagine that whoever 
wishes to cross this Lake must carefully avoid any cu- 
riosity in looking at this course and, in particular, at the 
place where he is to land ; the mere sight of it, they 



470 Lake Mistassini. 

say, causes the disturbance of the waters and rouses 
tempests that chill the very boldest with terror." * 

Father Albanel reports no more, and Michaux, who 
saw the lake in 1792, made no survey. 

His account is given by Hind, Explorations in 
Labrador, Vol. II, pp. 147-148, in the following words : 

" Leaving Lake St. John, he ascended the Mistas- 
sinni River, or Riviere des Sables, 150 miles long and 
navigable for canoes to a distance of 1 20 miles from its 
mouth. Here he met with a cascade 80 feet in height ; 
and from the summit of the hills near the cascade, a 
chain of lakes occupying a long valley leads to the divid- 
ing ridge, where a little tributary of Lake Mistassinni 
takes its rise and forms the canoe route. Early in Sep- 
tember the cold on the Height of Land was severe, and 
snow fell. On the 4th of the month, Michaux arrived 
at Lake Mistassinni. 

" This vast lake, little known except to the servants of 
the old Nor' West Company, occupies an area between the 
71st and 74th degrees of longitude, and beneath the 51st 
parallel. It discharges itself into Hudson's Bay by 

* Le 18. nous entrasmes dans ce grand Lac des Mistassirinins, qu'on tient estre 
si grand, qu'il faut vingt jours de beau temps pour en {aire le tour ; ce Lac tire son 
nom des rochers dont il est remply, qui sont d'une prodigieuse grosseur ; il y a 
quantite de tres-belles Isles, du gibier, et du poisson de toute espece ; les orignaux, 
les ours, les caribous, le pore-epic, et les castors y sont en abondance. Nous 
avions deja fait six lieues au travers des Isles qui l'entrecoupent, quand j'aperceus 
comme une eminence de terre, d'aussi loin que la veue se peut estendre ; je de- 
manday a nos gens, si e'estoit vers cet endroit qu'il nous falloit aller ? 

Tais-toy, me dit nostre guide, ne le regarde point, si tu ne veux perir. Les 
Sauvages de toutes ces contrees s'imaginent, que quiconque veut traverser ce Lac 
se doit soigneusement garder de la curiosite de regarder cette route, et principale- 
ment le lieu oil Ton doit aborder ; son seul aspect, disent-ils, cause l'agitation des 
eaux, et forme des tempestes qui font transir de frayeur les plus asseiirez. 

Relation de la Nouvelle France, en V Anne'e 1672, p. 49. 
Relations des Jesuites, Vol. III., Quebec, 1858. 



Lake Mistassini. 471 

Rupert's River. . . . In Michaux's manuscript notes the 
following description of the Mistassinni country is given : 
In the neighborhood of Hudson's Bay and the great 
Lake Mistassinni, the trees which, some degrees farther 
south, form the mass of the forest, have almost entirely 
disappeared in this latitude, in consequence of the sev- 
erity of the winters and the sterility of the soil. The 
whole country is cut up by thousands of lakes, and cov- 
ered with enormous rocks piled one on the top of the 
other, which are often carpeted with large lichens of a 
black color, and which increase the sombre aspect of 
these desert and almost uninhabitable regions. It is in 
the spaces between the rocks that one finds a few pines 
(Pinus rupestris), which attain an altitude of three feet, 
and even at this small height show signs of decay. 
However, 150 miles farther south, this tree acquires a 
better and stronger growth, but it never rises higher 
than eight or ten feet." Besides the pine, Michaux men- 
tions the following trees and plants : the dwarf birch 
(betula nana), juniper bushes, wild gooseberries, the 
Indian tea {Ledum palnstre), and some species of black- 
berries. It is only of late years that exploration has 
been attempted. 

The earliest delineation is by Franquelin in his 
" Carte de la Louisiane ou de Voyages du Sr. de la Salle 
et des pays qu'il a decouverts depuis la Nouvelle France 
jusqu' au Golfe Mexique les annees 1679, 80, 81 et 82, 
par Jean Baptiste Louis Franquelin, l'an 1684, Paris." 

This map is described by Mr. Parkman {Discovery 
of the Great West, pp. 410, 411), and after him by Mr. 
H. Harrisse, in his Notes sur la Nouvelle France, No. 
222. The original MS. map was in the Archives of the 



472 Lake Mistassini. 

Depdt de la Marine, at Paris, but has disappeared. A 
copy, made in 1856, is in the Parliament Library at 
Ottawa. It is to this copy, no doubt, that Mr. E. E. 
Tache, Ass't Commissioner of Crown Lands, Quebec, 
refers when he says* that " it gives a rather imperfect 
indication of this lake, which he (Franquelin) calls 

* In the following letter to Mr. Francis A. Stout, of this Society. It is appar- 
ently by a slip of the pen that Mr. Tache makes the date of Franquelin's map 1688. 

Quebec, October i, 1888. 
Francis A. Stout, Esq., Vice Prest. "Am. Geo. Society," 
29th street, New York City. 

Sir : — In answer to your inquiry of the 3d ult., I beg to inform you that the 
"Great Lake Mistassini." respecting which a number of fanciful articles have 
lately been published, in certain American and Canadian journals, has been known 
for a long time, having been discovered in 1672 bv the Rev. Pere Albanel, S. J. 
A trading post was established upon it by the French about the end of the seven- 
teenth century. 

Franquelin, in his manuscript map of New France, dated 1688, gives a rather 
imperfect indication of this lake which he calls " Tamagamingue," a name properly 
belonging to a much less important lake in the neighborhood. 

On a map of the region lying between Quebec and Hudson Bay, drawn by the 
Rev. Pere Laure, S. J, in 1731, '' Mistassini" is well represented. This manuscript 
map, which contains very many details and is drawn with great accuracy for the 
time, forms a part of the archives of the Ministry of Marine at Paris, and is repro- 
duced in the collection of copies made by the late P. L. Morin for the library of the 
Federal Parliament. 

The work of Pere Charlevoix includes a map of the geographer Bellin, pub- 
lished in 1744, in which appear all the data given by Pere Laure. 

These maps, however, not being based upon any regular measurements, cannot 
be considered very correct. The first geodetic survey of Lake Mistassini was begun 
in 1873, by Mr. Richardson, of the Geological Commission. 

In 1884, Mr. John Bignell, P. L. S., was placed at the head of an important 
exploring party, with instructions to minutely survey this great lake ; but, through 
difficulties which arose between him and the party in charge of the geological 
branch of this exploration, he was obliged to abandon the work. 

Mr. Lowe afterwards was entrusted with the expedition, and the result of his 
studies and researches are to be found in the reports of the Geological Commission 
of the Dominion of Canada for the year 1885. 

The French fort called " des Dorval," according to Father Laure, stood at the 
outlet of " Little Mistassini " into "Great Mistassini." Mr. Bignell, jr., thinks 
that remains of this fort can be found. 

Roberval never was at Lake Mistassini ; there is not, at least, any historical 
record of such fact. I have the honor to be. Sir, 

Your Most Obd't Serv't 

E. E. Tache, 
Asst. Commr. of Crown Lands. 

jl. B. — Herewith enclosed, I transmit you a tracing of that part of Father 
Laure's map indicating Lake Mistassini and the country surrounding. 



Lake Mistassini. 



473 



' Tamagamingue,' a name properly belonging to a much 
less important lake in the neighborhood." 




a t/acAfg* 



LAKE MISTASSINI. 



From a copy of the Map by Pere Laure, S. J. (1731), in the Library of the Cana- 
dian Parliament. The original is in the Archives of the Ministry of Marine, Paris. 

The Depot de la Marine possesses a MS. map of the 
country between Quebec and Hudson Bay drawn by 
Father Laure, S. J., in i 731 . The portion of this map 



474 Lake Mistassini. 

relating to Lake Mistassini is here reproduced from a 
tracing courteously furnished by Mr. Tache. 

In 1870 Mr. James Richardson, of the Canadian 
Geological Survey, was charged with the exploration of 
the country to the northward of Lake St. John. He 
made a survey of thirty miles along Lake Mistassini ; 
but provisions failed, and he was obliged to leave the 
work unfinished. It was taken up the following year by 
Mr. Walter McOuat, who says, in his report : 

" We measured on this lake' a coast line of about a 
hundred and fifty miles, including no bays less than a 
mile in width. The main body of the lake was found to 
be of a very elongated form. ... A series of long 
narrow islands, which were seen only from a distance, 
extends for many miles .... apparently parallel 
with the longer axis of the lake. We carried our measure- 
ments .... for about seventy miles from the ex- 
treme south-west point. As no land was visible from 
this position, looking in a north-easterly direction . . . 
the whole length of the lake cannot be much, if any, less 
than a hundred miles." 

For a surveyor, charged with official duties, Mr. 
McOuat is less precise than he might be, and Father 
Albanel's guide himself could not have been more careful 
to leave things as they were. The dread of the lake 
tempests seems to have lasted till 1884. In this year an 
expedition was sent out under Mr. John Bignell, P. L. S., 
to make : 

1st. A thorough survey, hydrographical and topo- 
graphical, of Lake Mistassini, especially of the northern 
and eastern portions not examined or surveyed by the 
Geological Survey parties under Messrs. Richardson and 
McOuat, in 1870-71. 



Lake Mistassini. 475 

2nd. A geological examination of the lake shore and 
of as much of the adjacent country as may be practicable. 

3rd. A collection of specimens, vegetable, mineral 
and animal, illustrating the resources of the region. 

This expedition, organized jointly by the Canadian 
Geological Survey and the Quebec Department of 
Crown Lands, met with only a partial success, Mr. John 
Bignell having been unable, " on account of some un- 
fortunate misunderstanding, to carry out more than a 
certain part of the duty which had been assigned to 
him." * In his detailed report to the Commissioner, 
Mr. Bignell is silent on the subject of the misunder- 
standing. 

He arrived with his party at the Little Mistassini on 
the 13th December and, continuing down the lake till 
the 19th, sent two Indians ahead to the Hudson Bay 
Co's Post for supplies. These men were met returning 
on the 2 1 st. 

On the 23d the party, was met, when a few miles from 
the Post, by Mr. Wm. Miller, the gentleman in charge, 
attended by a number of his employees. The Post is a 
cluster of four or five buildings, including the Co's store. 
Here Mr. Miller has resided with his wife and family for 
a number of years, in a house furnished with the com- 
forts of civilized life ; and at the time of Mr. Bignell's 
visit, he was about erecting a small chapel. Some of 
his employees are also married men. The Post is sup- 
plied from Rupert's House on James Bay, to which Mr. 
Miller makes a visit once a year in June, with the furs 
that have been collected. 

* Report of the Commissioner of Crown Lands of the Province of Quebec for 
the twelve months ended 30th June, 1885. 



476 Lake Mistassini. 

According to Mr._ Bignell, good potatoes and other 
vegetables are raised, although the land has been 
cropped over and over again for many years, without 
ever having been enriched. 

The Eskimo dogs, of which there are many at the 
Post, are employed in the winter for drawing the year's 
supply of wood for fuel, and in visiting the nets, some of 
which are set at a distance. These dogs are fed on fish 
in the winter, and in the summer forage for themselves. 

The temperature at Mistassini runs to extremes. 
The thermometer often marks 50 or 60° below zero 
(Fah.) in winter, but the air is very dry. The snow-fall 
is heavy and ice forms to the depth of six feet. The 
bays are frozen in October or November ; the great 
lake not till January, and the ice breaks up at the end 
of May or the middle of June. The summers are very 
hot, with frequent thunder-storms. 

Fur-bearing animals, particularly beaver, otter, 
marten and black bear, are numerous ; and the lakes 
abound with trout, jackfish, whitefish, pickerel, carp, and 
the " maria," a fish resembling the cod. 

He visited the Marble Cave, marked on Father 
Laure's map, and found that it contained two rooms, the 
outer one about 18 ft. wide and 16 deep, with a roof 8 
ft. high, the inner one 10 ft. deep, 8 ft. wide and 6 ft. 
high. The walls were of spar. 

Mr. Bignell remained for several weeks at the Hud- 
son Bay Co's Post, at Mistassini ; and he makes the 
following remarkable statements as to the size of the 
Lake: "A very intelligent Indian, to whom I spoke on 
the subject, told me that some years ago he had met 
with an old Indian who informed him that from what he 



Lake Mistassini. 477 

knew, and from what he had heard, he thought that a good 
walker, carrying nothing but what he required for the 
trip, could in the spring, on the crust, go from end to 
end of the Lake in ten days. Now under these circum- 
stances, as fifty or sixty miles per day would be consid- 
ered but moderate, we may form an approximate idea of 
the extent of this Lake, and if we accept only half of this 
estimate, we may still call the Lake an immense one. 
The general opinion was that it could not be scaled 
around in less than one summer." 

Mr. Bignell's faith is worthy of Sancho Panza's friend: 
" And he who told me this declared that it was so true 
that I might swear I myself had seen it." Stronger tes- 
timony could not be ; but the Commissioner of Crown 
Lands accepts as final the plan of the Grand Lake Mis- 
tassini prepared by Mr. Low, of the Geological Survey. 

" As I anticipated," says the Commissioner, " this 
sheet of water is not of the extraordinary dimensions 
assigned to it by certain parties from the exaggerated 
accounts which had reached them. Its extreme length 
is not more than ninety-five miles, nor its greatest 
breadth more than fifteen." If the "certain parties " are 
the intelligent Indian and Mr. Bignell, they have a griev- 
ance ; for the document, which records their belief in the 
immensity of the Lake, is printed without correction as 
Appendix No. 38 to the Report of the Commissioner. 

Mr. A. P. Low, B. Ap. Sc, who made the survey of 
Mistassini, was at first charged with the geological por- 
tion of the joint exploration. He tells, in his Report to 
the Director of the Geological and Natural History 
Survey,* that, while at the Hudson Bay Co.'s Post, he 

* Part D, Annual Report, 1885. 



478 Lake Mistassini. 

had several disagreements with Mr. Bignell and found it 
necessary to go to Ottawa. He returned with instruc- 
tions to take charge of the party. He began his survey 
where Mr. McOuat had left off on the west side, 
continued it to the north end and thence back down the 
east side, " connecting again with McOuat's survey at the 
Big Narrows," at the upper end of Abatagush Bay. 
The distances were measured with a Rochon micrometer, 
the angles with a transit theodolite, and frequent obser- 
vations for latitude were made with the sextant as a 
check on the scaling. The work was done in nineteen 
days. 

Mr. Low's report must be accepted, though it does 
not meet the requirements of a " thorough survey, hydro- 
graphical and topographical." The Lake is described as 
a long and narrow body of water stretching from N.E. 
to S.W., with a perceptible curve between the ends, the 
concavity of the curve being toward the S.E. It lies 
between N. Lat. 50° and 51 24', W. Long. 72° 45' to 
74° 20'. 

The length is said to be nearly one hundred miles. 
At one place the Lake is very deep, "an isolated sound- 
ing, made in crossing, having given 374 feet at a point 
which, / was informed, was not the deepest part of the 
Lake." 

Poonichaun Bay,* which lies W. of Abatagush Bay, 
" continues in a south-westerly course for a long distance, 
as the end was not reached after ascending it fourteen 
miles. The Indians say that a large river empties into 
the Lake at the head of this bay." 

The italicized expressions do not inspire confidence 

* Spelled Poonichuan on the Map. 



Lake Mistassini. 



479 



in the results of Mr. Low's exploration ; and there is 
work yet to be done before a true map of Lake Mistas- 
sini can be made. 

That so little has been known of the Lake is the more 
surprising, seeing that the Hudson Bay Company have 







\J>1 illlr File Htrtakf 



■ V7 ''*•' A T 

a I -a* / i 

;?</ / / 
^ / I L 

LOWER END OF LAKE MISTASSINI. 

From the Map in the Report of the Geological and Natural History Survey 
of Canada. Part D., 1885. 



had a trading post on its shores for over one hundred 
years. " This post," says Mr. Low, " was nrst situated 
near the outlet, but owing to the difficulty in procuring an 
adequate supply of fish, the staple article of food, the post 
was removed, over fifty years ago, to its present posi- 
tion on the south-east bay. During the time of the 
North-west Trading Company, tney also had a trading 



480 Lake Mistassini. 

post at the southern end of the south-east bay." * As to 
the climate Mr. Low says, on p. 16 of his Report, that 
the summer is shorter and colder on the main body of 
the lake than in the vicinity of the post. Where the 
trees were at all dense the low lands bordering the lake 
were frozen solid within a foot of the surface during the 
month of July. The Hudson Bay Post is the best 
point for agriculture, and here a poor crop of potatoes 
is raised yearly, the tops being always frozen before 
they mature. In the spring, as soon as the frost was 
out of the ground, Mr. Low sowed garden peas, beans, 
corn and turnips. On August 20th the peas were be- 
ginning to fill the pods, the beans were in flower, and 
the corn was eighteen inches above the ground ; the 
turnips alone were growing nicely. 

* Geological and Natural History Survey of Canada, p. 13, Part D, Annual 
Report, 1885.